Kim Yoon-tae, a doctor at a children’s hospital, receives a COVID-19 vaccination at a public health center in Mapo, western Seoul, Friday as President Moon Jae-in and Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency Commissioner Jeong Eun-kyeong watch the process. (Yonhap)
The first COVID-19 vaccination in South Korea has taken place, as the country kicked off its first-ever nationwide immunization campaign during a virus pandemic.
At 9 a.m. Friday, COVID-19 vaccines made by AstraZeneca started to be distributed at 1,915 public health center and nursing homes across the country. The vaccines were contract manufactured by SK Bioscience at its factory in Andong, North Gyeongsang Province.
Health officials had announced that more than 5,000 nursing home residents and workers younger than 65 would be receiving the AstraZeneca vaccines Friday morning, all at the same time.
President Moon Jae-in asked medical workers to carry out inoculations quickly and safely during his visit to a public health center in Mapo District, western Seoul, with Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency Director Jeong Eun-kyeong.
Unlike some countries, Korea did not designate the first person to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Individual public health centers throughout the country designated their own first vaccine receivers.
But, a 61-year-old nursing home worker at a public health center in Nowon District, northern Seoul, ended up being the first person to receive a COVID-19 vaccine as she received her shot at 8:45 a.m., 15 minutes before the officially designated time to start administering the vaccine.
“I have been anxious about COVID-19 for the past year but after taking [the vaccine] I feel much better. I also thank the government, district office and the public health center for their efforts,” the worker said. “I didn’t see any difference from taking other types of vaccines.”
Close to 94 percent of the 289,480 people designated to receive the inoculations agreed to be vaccinated, and 5,266 residents and workers at 213 nursing homes were scheduled to take their first shots on Friday.
Those receiving the vaccines had to register at a designated public health center and consult with medical professionals to be determine whether they were healthy enough to take the vaccine.
People who were unable to come to designated centers themselves, such as nursing homes residents, were visited by vaccination teams of doctors, nurses and assistants dispatched to administer the shots.
After receiving a jab, people are asked to stay at the public health center for 30 minutes to be monitored for any adverse symptoms. A team of doctors and nurses were on standby at vaccination sites to respond to any hazardous medical conditions.
Health officials advised people to keep an eye out for side effects even after the 30 minutes of monitoring.
The KDCA said people can experience pain and swelling on the arm where the vaccine was administered, along with a fever, chills, tiredness and a headache for three days after being given the vaccine, all of which can happen naturally as bodies create immunity against COVID-19 with the vaccine’s help.
The agency advised people to apply a cool washcloth over the pain area and take over-the-counter antipyretics or painkillers if needed after taking the vaccine.
If patients develop a rash, have difficulty breathing or a swollen tongue accompanied by dizziness, the disease control agency advised they should report to a nearby emergency room immediately.
The government has said a benefit of up to 430 million won ($383,739) will be provided to those who become severely disabled or die from taking a COVID-19 vaccine. Health authorities promised the government will provide compensation for serious side effects after taking scheduled shots, including the cost for hospital stays and treatments.
The nationwide initiative comes a full year and 37 days after the country identified its first COVID-19 case on Jan. 20, 2020.
More than 1 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine are expected to be sent to at least 1,900 public health center and nursing homes through Sunday.
Some 3,900 doses that were supposed to go to Jeju Island were exposed to unsafe temperatures on the way and had to be withdrawn. The doses were not discarded, but another shipment set off following the incident and Jeju Island was able to get its quota of vaccines in time.
AstraZeneca’s vaccine is more convenient for mass inoculation as its storage temperature requirement of between 2 and 8 degrees Celsius is much easier to maintain than the vaccine by Pfizer, which needs to be stored in temperatures as low as negative 80 degrees Celsius.
Public health center employees in Gwangju check the delivered batches of COVID-19 vaccines from AstraZeneca on Thursday. (Gwangju City Buk-gu)
Health officials said another vaccination scheme will start Saturday for the first group of around 55,000 medical workers at hospitals for virus patients. These workers will be receiving vaccines from Pfizer, which were provided as part of the World Health Organization’s global vaccine COVAX Facility project.
Some 300 healthcare workers treating COVID-19 patients in the greater Seoul region will be administered the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine at a state-run vaccination center run by the National Medical Center in central Seoul.
The doses from Pfizer will be given out at four other state-run facilities. Authorities are working to build 120 vaccination facilities throughout the country utilizing general hospitals, gymnasiums and state-run sites.
The government plans to complete the first round of inoculation for more than 70 percent of the population by September and achieve herd immunity by November to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic.
So far, the government has secured COVID-19 vaccines for 79 million people under COVAX and separate deals with foreign drug makers.
The COVID-19 vaccination scheme comes as the country continues to fight the third virus wave to date. Korea on Friday added 406 new cases – 382 locally transmitted and 24 imported from overseas – raising the accumulated total to 88,922.
The country also reported four more COVID-19 deaths, raising the total number of deaths from the virus to 1,585. By Thursday’s end, the number of COVID-19 patients in serious condition stayed unchanged at 144.
Health authorities on Friday decided to extend its current social distancing guidelines for two additional weeks until March 14 while keeping the ban on gatherings of five or more people in place. At the moment, Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi Province are under Level 2 rules while other areas are under Level 1.5 rules.
“Although another uptick in virus cases that we worried of happening after the Lunar New Year holiday did not occur, we still have not reached stability,” Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said in a meeting Friday. “Sporadic cluster infections are breaking out continuously.”
By Ko Jun-tae (firstname.lastname@example.org)